Barry Richards, author of The Psychology of Politics, talks about what psychology can tell us about populism and the changing nature of democracy.

At the time of writing this piece, the political news in the UK is bristling with reports of a stream of Members of Parliament resigning from both of the two major parties, and henceforth sitting in Parliament as independents. Most have formed an ‘Independent’ Group, which is seen by many as an embryonic party. Where this will go is hard to guess, but a lot of sage opinion in the commentariat has it that we are seeing a potentially major challenge to the almost full century of dominance of British politics by the two major parties, Conservative and Labour. That would be a major change, ending the two-party system born as a reflection of what was once the basic antagonism in British society, that between capital and labour. The ideological axis from Right to Left was key to that system, and as the old class structure has dissolved so that axis has become less useful for organising the political field, and for distinguishing the parties. So the party system is ready for a shake-up. It has also - in its tribalism, factionalism and dogmatisms - become an important source of the distrust with which politicians are now widely regarded. The current wave of resignations could, but might not, be the start of a major realignment, and perhaps even of a partial renewal of democratic politics – a positive product of the Brexit crisis of prolonged confrontation and irresolution amongst politicians and public. But in any case, there are some deeper changes in the making, for the understanding of which a psychological analysis of politics is necessary.

One of the deepest changes in our culture since the middle of the last century has been in changing attitudes towards authority, the ‘decline of deference’ as it has been called: an increasingly widespread stance of suspicion, indifference or hostility toward authorities of all kind. This development (the root causes of which must lie in deep psychosocial changes in our culture) affects both cognitive appraisals and the emotional content of our relations with authority. It has underpinned many positive gains in how freely and creatively we can think and relate to others, and made possible the casting off of many oppressive received wisdoms. It has led to more compassion in many spheres, and real growth in the status and self-respect of various social groups.

In recent times, however, a downside of this development has become more apparent. It has led to some people becoming dismissive of democratic politics, the institutions and functionaries of which become just another out-of-touch authority to be regarded with contempt. It has facilitated cries of ‘fake news’ from across the political spectrum when people are confronted with facts or phenomena they do not wish to encounter. Populist politicians find ready audiences for their accusations against the ‘establishment’, including the mainstream media and (especially in relation to climate change) even science. Of course, some of this groundswell of rejection is in direct response to the shortcomings of the authorities themselves, for example in the political failures to anticipate the financial crisis and to manage it less damagingly. But the decline of deference was well underway long before this century.

It may seem paradoxical that amidst abundant evidence of collapsing trust, significant sections of voting publics across the world are putting their faith in charismatic leaders, from Duterte in the Philippines to Bolsonaro in Brazil. Yes, populism is characterised by rhetoric which condemns the corruption or self-seeking of the political class and presents the aspiring leader as a new kind of politician, untainted by the weaknesses and sins of all other leaders. But why is this approach able to find such credulous publics, rather than public despair about politics not leading to a mass withdrawal from it, as many feared was happening around the turn of the century: deepening ignorance of and cynicism about politics as a whole, and vanishing electoral turnouts, suffocating democracy from within?

The answer probably lies in the fact that collectively we cannot live without authority. It is built into us from our earliest experiences in the arms of our caregivers, who were the first representatives to us of the power of society, a power to which we must in some ways submit if we are to be able to live with others. When, for whatever reasons, those currently carrying political authority can no longer inspire confidence, we - that is, significant numbers of us - are vulnerable to the illusion that a saviour will come. The deeper the imperfections of reality as we see it, the greater the appeal of unreality. And in the worst cases, the seductive unreality of populist rhetoric may usher in the reality of an ‘illiberal democracy’, as the ‘new kind of politician’ exploits the popular craving for good leadership and transmutes into a domineering and divisive president.

This undoubtedly oversimplifies what happens in any specific case where a ‘populist’ leader gains power. And the idea that human nature includes a need for authority is open to some dangerous interpretations. Nonetheless, understanding the deeper dynamics of our relationships to authority is important to understanding how cultural changes are affecting politics, and what may be needed to respond more effectively to present threats to liberal democracy.